Comparing the virtual realms of Inception and eXistenZ

Although released over a decade apart, Christopher Nolan's Inception shares many parallels with David Cronenberg's cult sci-fi, eXistenZ...

“Disclaimer: it is recommended that individuals handling the device during injection and infusion process should clean and sanitize their hands, as well as keep a biohazard disposal container for needles and cannula used in the injection process.”

So reads the operator’s manual for PASIV – the enigmatic dream machine at the heart of Christopher Nolan’s  2010 sci-fi thriller, Inception. A device which allows its users to share the same dream, it’s used for criminal ends by protagonist Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio); by plugging a slumbering victim into PASIV, Cobb and his team of thieves can break into their target’s slumbering mind and steal valuable information.

Billionaire businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) approaches Cobb with a rather more difficult mission, however: apprehend corporate rival Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), invade his subconscious, and manipulate him into breaking up his company. Planting an idea in somebody else’s head – a process called inception – requires a complex maze of dreams within dreams, and, as Cobb and his team soon realise, can be fraught with danger.

Although released in 2010, the $160m blockbuster Inception began life many years earlier. Nolan had originally pitched an early form of the film’s concept to Warner in 2001, not too long after such reality-bending thrillers as Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999), and The Thirteenth Floor (1999) had opened in cinemas. Nolan admitted as much in a 2010 interview with The LA Times:

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“…I think when I first started trying to make this film happen it was very much pulled from that era of movies where you had The Matrix, you had Dark City, you had The Thirteenth Floor and, to a certain extent, you had Memento too. They were based in the principles that the world around you might not be real.”

While Inception shares certain elements in common with those films, it also bears a resemblance to another late-90s movie – one that Nolan didn’t list in that interview: David Cronenberg’s sci-fi thriller, eXistenZ.

“It’s a whole new game system”

In the future of videogames as written by David Cronenberg, we’ll all jack into fleshy consoles called Game Pods. These pods will provide virtual reality games so believable that we’ll scarcely be able to tell the difference between them and our ordinary waking life. The games are so realistic, in fact, that a kind of neo-Luddite movement will spring up, dedicated to assassinating their designers and the reality-warping experiences they create.

This is exactly what happens to star game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) at the start of eXistenz. During a public demonstration of her latest game – the eXistenZ of the title – Allegra’s attacked by a young assassin from the ‘Realist’ movement.  In the ensuing gun battle, Allegra’s whisked away by virginal security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law), and the pair make their way across the countryside in search of a safe haven. Allegra, anxious to protect the only copy of eXistenZ, draws Pikul into the trippy world of her games, which is full of its own double-agents and would-be killers. As one simulated realm melts into another, the question becomes not so much about who they can trust, but whether they can even trust reality itself.

Dream devices and fleshy consoles

At first glance, these two films, released over a decade apart by two very different filmmakers, might seem to have only superficial things in common. But a closer look reveals less obvious ties between Inception and eXistenZ, whether Christopher Nolan intended them or not (Nolan doesn’t appear to have mentioned eXistenZ in any of his interviews with the press, so we can’t say for sure whether he’s seen Cronenberg’s film).

Consider, first of all, the nature of the PASIV device in Inception and the Game Pod in eXistenZ. In essence, they perform almost identical functions: they allow people to connect to a virtual space and share a common experience. Whether you describe these virtual spaces as dreams or games is really immaterial, since they’re both an artificial construct – that is, their realities are created by characters within each particular film.

In eXistenZ, the game is created by the “Game Pod Goddess” Allegra Geller, who tells us that the budget for creating her latest experience is “$38m, excluding marketing.”

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Inception goes into more detail as to how the virtual spaces are created; indeed, Nolan takes the time to introduce the individual members of Cobb’s crew and the role they serve in Cobb’s impending heist. Ariadne (Ellen Page) designs the layouts for the dreams, while Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the researcher, and Eames (Tom Hardy) is an expert forger and master of disguise.

The device in Inception, therefore, becomes a tool for extracting (or later implanting) information. But Nolan also describes the PASIV machine’s original purpose: it was created by the military to train soldiers. As Arthur explains:

“That’s why the military developed dream sharing – a training program where soldiers could strangle, stab and shoot each other, then wake up.”

The PASIV device was, therefore, originally conceived as a kind of games console, not unlike the one in eXistenZ. The difference being, of course, that PASIV’s original function was for training rather than entertainment.

Marvelling at the texture of a fictional reality

Early in Inception, we see an example of what can happen when one of Cobb’s mind heists goes awry. Cobb and his crew have tried to extract some information from  Saito. When that attempt doesn’t quite pan out, Saito wakes up back in his own apartment, where Cobb makes a further (and more aggressive) attempt to get the information he needs.

“Tell us what you know!” Cobb says, throwing Saito to the floor and waving a gun at his head. Saito lands face down on a distinctive-looking carpet, resulting in this memorable shot: 

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“I’ve always hated this carpet,” Saito says. “It’s stained and frayed in such distinctive ways. But very definitely made of wool. Right now I’m lying on polyester…”

This tiny, give-away detail reveals to Saito that what he’s experiencing isn’t real, and sure enough, what Saito – and the audience – is experiencing is actually a dream within a dream.

The sequence has an interesting parallel in eXistenZ. In one scene, we see Allegra marvelling at the sounds, smells and textures of the world she’s created. She kicks the dust outside a country gas station and watches the particles form in the air. We see her hand explore the rough texture of concrete. Ted Pikul does a similar thing later on. In an apparently throwaway shot, Cronenberg’s camera observes as Pikul’s hand sinks into the fabric of a chair back: 

IneXistenZs director commentary, Cronenberg explained, “This shot doesn’t seem to really mean anything, but once again it’s the idea of examining the details of this created world. The completeness of it, the artistry of it. This 60s chair and the texture of it. It’s the same way that, in a videogame these days, people are very proud of the graphics  and how many polygons are used for the movement of the human body, and so on.”

In each film, Nolan and Cronenberg use a similar idea for different reasons. In Inception, the scene gets across the detail and “completeness” of these constructed dream landscapes, while at the same time showing us how even a small flaw in a con artist’s design can cause the whole experience to collapse. Cronenberg, meanwhile, suggests that truly realistic game worlds can be almost intoxicating in their complexity – more exciting, perhaps, than reality itself. 

This recalls a line from Videodrome, a 1982 film with similar themes to eXistenZ: “Television is reality, and reality is less than television…”

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Haircuts and nested realities

One of the most memorable aspects of Christopher Nolan’s Inception is its use of multiple nested dreams, where its characters dive down into carefully-wrought layers of unreality like levels in a videogame. Implanting an idea into the head of Cobb’s mark, Fischer, involves drugging him on a transatlantic flight, infiltrating his dream, and then generating further dreams within that one in order to drill down into Fischer’s subconscious.

On a practical level, the film asks quite a lot of its blockbuster audience: we’re meant to keep track of what Cobb and his gang are up to within each of these dreams-within-dreams. To help keep us oriented, Nolan keeps the dream spaces visually distinct – by setting one dream in a hotel and another in a snowy fortress, for example – while also providing visual cues in the characters’ appearance. Take, for instance, Ariadne’s hair; in one dream level, her normally flowing locks are neatly tied up: 

Interestingly, Cronenberg takes a similar approach in eXistenZ. Like the characters in Inception, Pikul and Allegra jack into one virtual reality, and then disappear into another videogame realm within that. Cronenberg subtly helps us to distinguish between these realities by changing the protagonists’ appearance. You can see how their hair changes as the pass from space to space: 

Visual details like these help us follow  the narrative, even as Cronenberg bewilders us with his own knotty plot of uncertain agendas and double-crosses. The way the characters subtly change as they enter each game reality is important, though, because it’s setting us up for a glorious sucker-punch at the end.

Dreams and games as a window into the subconscious

In Inception, the participants of shared dreams often bring their personal baggage along for the trip. Usually, this is exactly what Cobb wants; while a target is asleep, their secret thoughts and desires are revealed. “My subconscious populates your world,” Cobb tells Ariadne. “That’s one way we  get at a subject’s thoughts – his mind creates the people, and we can literally talk to his subconscious.”

There’s a downside to this, as we see later in the film: Cobb’s late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) frequently bubbles up from his guilty mind to throw his best-laid plans into disarray.

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The idea of subconscious thoughts affecting a virtual world is explored to similar, quite brilliant effect in eXistenZ. Throughout Cronenberg’s film, a weird motif keeps appearing: a gun made of bones and old teeth, followed by the arrival of a large white dog. At first, this marvellously exotic bone gun seems part-and-parcel of the biological sci-fi world Cronenberg’s created, where consoles are grown from amphibian DNA and operated on by Ian Holm.

But when the bone gun appears a second time, in a scene where Ted Pikul assembles the firearm from the remains of a hideous-looking meal in a Chinese restaurant, it becomes clear that Cronenberg’s up to something. Why is there a lingering shot of a dog dragging the gun away after Pikul’s finished using it to shoot a waiter to death? Why, when Ian Holm’s Game Pod surgeon shows up with yet another bone gun towards the end of the film, does he off-handedly say, “The dog brought me this”?

The answer’s revealed ineXistenZs climax, which we won’t reveal here. It’s merely enough to say that the motif of the bone gun and the dog are, like Mal in Inception, the unintended by-product of someone’s subconscious mind. Cronenberg’s virtual reality videogames, just like Nolan’s dreams, provide a revealing window into their participants’ innermost thoughts.

The passing of time

“When you dream, your mind functions more quickly, so time seems to pass more slowly,” Cobb tells Ariadne in Inception. It’s an idea Cronenberg touches on in eXistenZ, but only fleetingly; one character in his film observes that time passes more slowly within a game; “You could live in there for hundreds of years,” he says.

In Inception, of course, this concept is explored much further. Events which should occur in a split second in everyday reality last for several minutes within a dream. This results in spectacular action set-pieces like the zero-gravity corridor fight, or more disturbing ideas, like that of being trapped in a PASIV-induced Limbo where an instant can feel like 50 years.

Virtual worlds apart

Having discussed all the ways Inception and eXistenZ cross paths, it’s also important to emphasise just how different each film is. Like the characters in the films themselves, Nolan and Cronenberg bring their own sensibilities and obsessions to their artificial realities.

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Inception is, like Nolan himself, coolly cerebral. Even though it deals with the dream world, it’s constructed like a Swiss watch or a complex puzzle – it’s telling that the artist Nolan most prominently references is MC Escher and his precisely-rendered, impossible landscapes.

eXistenZ, as you might expect from Cronenberg, is more akin to a Hieronymus Bosch painting – it’s gory, carnal and blackly comic. Where Nolan’s dream machine is a functional, convincing-looking device in a briefcase, Cronenberg’s Game Pods look like some kind of alien foetus: pink, pulsating things with controls which look like sexual organs. Cronenberg imagines his virtual reality games as being like a kind of techno-orgy for the mind, where inhibitions are lowered and anything – whether it’s violent or sexual – is permitted.

Both eXistenZ and Inception also owe a debt to other films and writers. Cronenberg openly references the hugely influential writer Philip K Dick in eXistenZ – a fastfood joint called Perky Pat’s is a nod to Dick’s sci-fi novel, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch. Nolan, although he’s said that Inception is influenced by Satoshi Kon’s 2006 anime Paprika and the writing of Borges, may also be drawing on Philip K Dick’s novels – some of Inception‘s events are remarkably similar to Ubik, a book which may also have inspired The Matrix.

Nolan may even have read Christopher Priest’s 1998 sci-fi novel The Extremes, which also deals with artificial realities. Priest also wrote The Prestige (which Nolan adapted into a movie in 2006) and, coincidentally, the eXistenZ tie-in novelisation.

Whatever their influences, Inception and eXistenZ both tap into age-old philosophical questions about the subjective nature of reality and whether it can really be trusted. And if a piece of technology like the Game Pod or PASIV really was created, what would that do to the way we perceive the real world?

The spinning top at the end of Inception keeps on spinning, leaving us uncertain as to whether what at first seems like a happy conclusion is really just another fiction. eXistenZ ends on a similarly ambiguous note, leaving one character to nervously ask, “Tell me, are we still in the game…?”

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